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Sunday, Jan. 20, 2013
Fukushima's powder paradise
By CHRISTOPHER JOHNSON
Special to The Japan Times
I seem to have the whole mountain to myself. The vast majesty of Fukushima Prefecture spreads out below me, all around. Up here, skiing on powdery snow, zigzagging through challenging moguls, it's easy to forget about the nuclear reactors 120 km away.
Say what you will about radiation, but Fukushima is no less beautiful than it was before the reactor meltdowns at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant kicked off the region's ongoing man-made tragedy in March 2011.
Below me, a distant frozen lake sits in the lap of tree-studded hills, sheltered by towering peaks and ridges along the roof of Japan. The undulations, together with the blue sky and white snow, put me in a kind of rhythmic trance well known to skiers. At 4 p.m. on a sparkling winter day, a sun dog appears, reminding us that God and supernatural forces did not flee the area after March 11.
Here, on some of Japan's best ski slopes, is the real Fukushima. Not the Fukushima in the news: battered by a tsunami, bruised by the nuclear disaster on the coast, blemished by the rumors that anything associated with Fukushima — any person or product — is somehow tainted and cancerous. On a gorgeous winter day, nothing in Japan could be more pure and healthy than skiing at the resorts of Nekoma and Alts Bandai at the foot of 1,819-meter Mount Bandai on the western side of the prefecture.
The people here — the skiers, managers, and staff at these resorts — are actually doing what everybody in Japan says Japan should be doing. Instead of ignoring, neglecting or running away from Fukushima, they are embracing it, holding it up with pride for the world to see what a wonderful place it still is. Fukushima, in truth, is one of the most spectacular places in Japan, a country loaded with amazing sites and history.
A snow-topped peak towering over the prefecture, Mount Bandai, roughly between Koriyama and Aizu-Wakamatsu, belongs alongside Mount Fuji, Mount Iwate and others in the pantheon of Japan's majestic mountains. Mount Bandai also hosts several resorts, including the Alts family, which is split into two resorts: Bandai on the south face of the mountain, and Nekoma on the north.
Bandai tends to attract families and all levels of skiers who enjoy its variety of runs and proximity to its luxurious resort hotel. Nekoma, which roughly translates as Demonic Cat, is tailored to challenge more advanced skiers with some creamy mogul runs, steep slopes and tantalizing jumps for demonic cats on boards. Raised on skis near the Canadian Rockies, I leapt at the tempting runs at Nekoma. I never had to wait in line, and even on a gorgeous Friday afternoon, I often had runs to myself.
As an added bonus, I could sit on the lift and watch Japan's best daredevils showing off their acrobatic somersaults and 1080 turns completed with smooth landings that seem to defy human kinetics. Such on-the-limit snowboarders have no room for anything less than perfection in what they do, as a simple human error could for them be instantly fatal.
Yet despite wind, snow, rain or other distractions, Japan's best acrobats somehow manage to land like satanic felines on their feet, and hold their balance just enough to embark on the next awe-inspiring jump.
Many jumpers also work as resort staff. I've never seen friendlier staff anywhere else in the ski world. Cheerful older Japanese men, brooming off snow or rain, cheerfully greeted me every time I got on or off the chair lifts. They sent me off or welcomed me back with polite, homey phrases in Japanese such as itterashai (take care) or okaerinasai (welcome back).
Similarly cheerful staff at the rental area and also at the resort hotel were genuinely sociable in a loose and chatty way; they treated me like a family member of the international tribe of skiers.
Nekoma's manager, Kei Ishiuchi, is an amiable character who speaks English like a Canadian ski bum. His father lives near Vancouver, in Whistler, British Columbia, and Kei himself spent years working in Banff, Alberta, and also guiding sailors and kayakers around the oyster gardens of the Sunshine Coast and the fjords of Desolation Sound, among British Columbia's hidden wonders.
Kei's friendly, funky vibe rubs off on the youthful staff and the skiers at Nekoma. It feels like a surf-city beach party on snow, where you can hang out with some of Japan's coolest snowboarders, who also surf Niigata Prefecture's wild beaches on the Sea of Japan in summer. Many of the staff, including the resort's webmaster, Jun Oikawa, used to surf in Minamisoma just north of the stricken nuclear plant. Their love for Fukushima's nature and culture has kept them here even though others have left.
The Hoshino group, which also runs the family-friendly Tomamu resort in central Hokkaido, seems a model example of the type of companies Japan needs to take it forward into the future.
Hoshino's president has a reputation for chairing meetings in a T-shirt, and many of his younger staff in both Hokkaido and Fukushima say they really appreciate the youthful vibe within the company. Even though business at Alts was down about 20 percent in 2011 due to radiation fears and "rumor damage," the Hoshino group still employs 300 staff in the winter and 70 in the summer at Alts Bandai and Nekoma. In an area with few jobs and a need for more entrepreneurs, they're a major provider of income, and a beacon of hope for a sustainable economic future in Fukushima.
Since they were also forced to shut down until the summer after the March 2011 disasters, resort operators are keenly aware of testing for radiation, which they say is about the same as or even lower than in Tokyo on some days. They publish results on their website so potential customers can judge for themselves. Depending on the number of skiers, they also close down some lifts in order to save energy and cost.
Managers have Tokyo in mind. The resorts offer free shuttle buses to the nearest city, Koriyama, and back, meaning you could wake up in Tokyo, take the 6:12 a.m. bullet train to arrive in Koriyama at 7:32 a.m. and then jump on the free 8 a.m. shuttle, reach Nekoma mountain by 10:15 a.m., ski for six hours (more than long enough to punish your body), take the 4:30 p.m. shuttle from Nekoma back to Koriyama, then the bullet train (or local trains to save money), and sleep in your own bed in Tokyo that night.
It's much better, however, to stay in the well-run resort at the base of Alts Bandai (www.alts.co.jp/english/lodging)
In the resort's lobby area, piano music creates a reflective vibe. The dinner buffet on my visit included juicy steaks grilled on demand, some local soba noodles and other specialities, and a variety of Japanese and international dishes to fuel my legs for another day of skiing. Beers on tap include the delicious mountain brew Yona-Yona, along with some of Fukushima's best sakes.
Meanwhile, the lower floor boasts a big indoor pool and onsen hot-spring baths fueled by water from beneath Mount Bandai; a rich, reddish broth renowned for soothing chapped skin scorched by wind and sun.
After a deep sleep on a comfy bed, I woke to the light emerging on Mount Bandai, and the runs of Alts Bandai beckoning guests gathered by their windows. That day, as I took another pounding on Nekoma's moguls, I thought about the hospitable people of Fukushima, who are going to need resorts like this to keep the economy running. Whether skiing in winter or hiking in summer, people from Tokyo and other parts of Japan can help Fukushima by spending time — and money — and having wonderful experiences there.
Christopher Johnson's new novel, "Kobe Blue," is available now.